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As SpaceX prepares for the April 30 test flight of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the "commercial cargo" phase of its business plan, yesterday it announced creation of a five-person safety panel to provide advice on what it hopes will be the next phase -- "commercial crew."
If all goes according to plan on the April 30 flight, Dragon will berth with the International Space Station (ISS) to demonstrate its ability to deliver cargo to the ISS. Dragon will not carry any crew on this flight, which is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. NASA initiated the COTS program to facilitate the emergence of a commercial capability for companies to build and launch space transportation systems to provide ISS-related services to NASA on a commercial basis.
With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA itself has no capability to take cargo or crew to the ISS. It relies on Russia to transport astronauts, and on Russia, Europe and Japan to take cargo.
NASA is building a new rocket and spacecraft to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), where ISS is located, but the plan is to rely on the commercial sector to provide both cargo and crew services to ISS for the future. SpaceX hopes to be one of the companies selected by NASA to provide "commercial crew" services to ISS in the future using Falcon 9 and Dragon, as well as launching other paying customers ("space tourists") to LEO.
The safety panel it named yesterday "will provide objective assessments of the safety of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to help SpaceX maintain the highest level of safety," according to the SpaceX press release.
The five SpaceX safety panel members named yesterday are:
SpaceX said they will have their first meeting in the fall of 2012 and work "well after SpaceX begins flying people into space."
NASA's commercial crew program is controversial for many reasons, one of which is concern that commercial companies will be less concerned about safety than the government.
The House of Representatives passed the budget plan sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) yesterday, which would impose deeper cuts to the federal budget in FY2013 and future years than agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act (BCA).
President Obama's FY2013 budget request was premised on the top-line number that was adopted in the BCA -- $1.047 trillion. The Ryan plan reduces that to $1.028 trillion and protects funding for the Department of Defense (DOD).
The BCA was passed after long and difficult negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, the House and Senate, and Congress and the President. Democrats contend that the BCA settled the issue of how much money could be spent in FY2013, but House Republicans decided to fight for less spending.
The funding figures in the Ryan plan are likely to mean less funding for NASA and NOAA, which are part of "non-defense discretionary" spending.
The Senate has not passed a budget resolution yet.
Politico has an interesting analysis of the impact the Ryan budget will have on many government programs. It does not discuss space activities specifically, but provides a useful perspective, including the following:
"For Obama, the cuts demanded from nondefense appropriations are at least $27 billion more than he would have assumed after the summer talks. And by the end of 2014, the plan anticipates that nondefense discretionary spending would fall to $406 billion, a reduction of $100 billion, or nearly 20 percent.
"When adjusted for inflation, that would leave most agencies with less money than they received at any time under President George W. Bush. And the cut is proportionally larger than any reduction Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich achieved at the height of their powers in the ’80s and ’90s."
It was a busy day today -- three congressional hearings on NASA and NOAA, plus the first day of the American Astronautical Society (AAS) Goddard Memorial Symposium.
We could not be at them all! We were at the AAS symposium (story to follow after the meeting concludes tomorrow), but here are links to the three congressional hearings.
House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Securing the Promises of the International Space Station: Challenges and Opportunities
House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Hearing on To Observe and Protect: How NOAA Procures Data for Weather Forecasting
Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee Hearing on FY2013 NASA Budget Request
Renowned deep sea explorer and film maker James Cameron made the deepest ocean dive today in a one-man submarine. Journeying 7 miles down into the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, his exploit illustrated the adage that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. For planetary scientists, it may also foretell some of the challenges of returning samples from a destination that is much further away -- Mars.
National Geographic explained the problems that beset the mission after Cameron successfully returned to the surface. The mission duration was cut in half because of a hydraulic fluid leak. Expected to explore the area for about six hours, he decided to resurface after three as the fluid interfered with his efforts. "I saw a lot of hydraulic fluid come up in front of the port. The port got coated with it." he told National Geographic News. The leak also prevented him from picking up any rock or animal samples with a robot arm, and he "lost a lot of thrusters. I lost the whole starboard side."
The goal of returning rock and animal samples was hampered before the dive began when the submarine's sonar system malfunctioned. The original plan was to send down a baited "lander" to attract deep sea animals, but since the sonar on the submarine was not working, the team decided there was no point in launching the lander because Cameron would not be able to find it. The location where he arrived was devoid of life. "It was bleak....It looked like the Moon," he was quoted as saying.
Planetary scientists have discussed for years the fact that returning samples from Mars is not only a technical and cost challenge, but relies on not simply returning any samples, but the right samples to provide the information they seek. Plans to launch a series of missions to collect and store ("cache") samples from a variety of locations for eventual return to Earth are on hold indefinitely because of budget decisions.
Cameron is not deterred, however. His parting comment to National Geographic News was: "Next dive. Gotta leave something for the next dive." That will be a lot easier for him than sending more Mars probes if failures are initially encountered. Not only are Mars probes very expensive, but Mars and Earth are correctly aligned in their orbits about the Sun only once every 26 months.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.
The House and Senate both are in session this week.
Tuesday, March 27
Tuesday-Thursday, March 27-29
Wednesday, March 28
Wednesday-Friday, March 28-30
Thursday-Friday, March 29-30
A large panel of witnesses from the Department of Defense (DOD), the three military services, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee's (SASC's) Strategic Forces Subcommittee on Wednesday on an array of space issues, but the wisdom of negotiating a Code of Conduct for space activities was center stage. At the same time, GAO, usually a strong critic of DOD's management and acquisition of space systems, praised DOD on its progress in changing the paradigm.
Subcommittee chairman Ben Nelson (D-NE) and ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the only Senators present, both made clear their reservations about negotiating a Code of Conduct for space -- an agreement they believe could limit what the United States does in space and thus harm national security. Madelyn Creedon, a former SASC committee staffer and now Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, assured the Senators that the Code of Conduct would be a voluntary agreement, not a treaty, and would not limit U.S. options. It is all about "behavior, not capabilities," she stressed.
The European Union (EU) drafted a Code of Conduct whose objective is to define responsible behavior for space-faring nations. The idea is that countries cannot be criticized for poor behavior if good behavior has not been defined. The perceived need for such a Code of Conduct is being spurred by two events that created a substantial amount of space debris -- China's intentional destruction of one of its own satellites in a 2007 antisatellite test and the 2009 unintentional collision of a U.S. commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite. Key goals of the draft Code is convincing countries and commercial entities to refrain from creating more debris and establishing mechanisms to improve space situational awareness (SSA) so everyone knows where everyone else's satellites are.
Opponents of the effort to develop a Code of Conduct assert that it is a backhanded way of creating an arms control treaty for outer space. Russia and China have been attempting for years through the United Nations Committee on Disarmament to establish a space arms control treaty, without success. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations have steadfastly refused to negotiate such a treaty, although discussions are OK.
However, the U.S. is willing to negotiate a non-binding, voluntary Code of Conduct that is not a treaty but a useful mechanism to deal with space debris and SSA. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in January that the United States will work with Europe and other countries to finalize such a Code. The U.S. position is that many more countries need to be brought into the discussion. The EU will sponsor meetings to broaden the debate. Creedon said at the hearing that the first "meeting of experts" would be in June and she anticipates it will take one or two years to finalize an agreement. Other officials have suggested an even longer time period.
At the hearing, Senators Nelson and Sessions acknowledged that this is a State Department issue over which their subcommittee has no jurisdiction. Nonetheless they sought and received assurances that the Senate would be consulted before any agreement was signed. The Senate must provide advice and consent to ratification of any treaty, but since this is not a treaty, its role in approving or disapproving it is unclear. Sessions said that Congress is "interested and watching" what the Administration does.
Other topics that were discussed extensively was the decision to terminate the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) and Space Test Program (STP), how to lower the cost of launching satellites and bring new entrants into the marketplace, how to protect spectrum used by DOD, and how to assure that ground systems and user equipment associated with a satellite program are ready when the satellite is launched.
GAO, which usually has a long list of criticisms of DOD space acquisition, focused on the ground systems/user equipment issue this year. Cristina Chaplain, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, noted how much has changed with regard to DOD space programs in the past few years. "If I were here five years ago," she said, "I would be talking about all the major programs having very large cost increases and schedule delays....resistance to implementing best practices...and lax oversight." Some space programs still have problems, she continued, but not to the same extent.
One of the major concerns today is that ground systems and user equipment are not ready when satellites are launched. "We're seeing too many programs [where] the user equipment is just arriving years later than the satellites and you really have a situation where you're wasting expensive capacity in space when that happens," she said. The Navy's Multiple User Objective System (MUOS) was cited as an example today, and GPS III is of concern for the future.
The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) to the International Space Station (ISS) very early this morning.
The Ariane 5 launch from ESA's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (South America), took place at 04:34 Greenwich Mean Time, or 00:34 Eastern Daylight Time. Beautiful video of the launch as the Ariane 5 passes in and out of clouds is available on ESA's website.
The ATV-3 spacecraft is named after Edorado Arnaldi, an Italian physicist who was one of the founding fathers of European space research. It is carrying 20 tonnes of supplies to the iSS. Docking is scheduled for March 28.
This is the third of five ATV flights currently planned by ESA to fulfill part of its financial obligations to the United States as one of the iSS partners. Nine ATVs originally were planned. The ATVs are not designed to survive reentry. Once they detach from the ISS they burn up in the atmosphere.
Safety was the watchword at Tuesday's hearing on the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation by a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee. Public safety, crew safety, and passenger safety. The government's indemnification of commercial launch service providers and the dual role of the FAA as both regulator and facilitator of the commercial launch industry were other key issues.
Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the subcommittee on space and aviation, and other members quizzed George Nield, director of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), and Will Trafton, chairman of AST's advisory committee, COMSTAC, about how AST will ensure the safety of NASA astronauts on commercial rockets as well as ordinary people who fly to space on a commercial basis.
Subcommittee members complimented Nield on the perfect safety record of his office over the past three decades. AST has licensed over 200 commercial launches with no loss of life or serious injury or property damage to the public. It is requesting $16.7 million for FY2013, $429,000 over its FY2012 level according to Nield. The increase would fund additional personnel to deal with an expected rise in license and permit applications. Nield and Trafton both said they anticipated a significant increase with the emergence of the suborbital space tourism business as well as commercial space launches NASA is facilitating through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are both expected to begin launches of their commercial cargo services to the International Space Station through the COTS program this year.
In addition to the usual questions about why AST believes it needs a funding increase, the safety of launching people into space, or near-space as the suborbital companies plan, was a key issue at the hearing. Subcommittee chairman Palazzo asked Nield how his office will handle orbital versus suborbital flights and its interaction with NASA on launching NASA astronauts on commercial vehicles.
Nield said "Our approach for overseeing the launches that we have coming up consists of looking at both the impact on public safety and the impact on crew members and space flight participants." Pursuant to the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments, "space flight participants" basically are members of the public -- tourists -- who choose to go into space with one of the commercial providers of such services. In the 2004 law, Congress prohibited the FAA from imposing strong regulations for space tourists -- it can require only informed consent -- for 8 years while the industry develops, after which the FAA can impose stricter regulations if needed. With the advent of commercial suborbital or orbital spaceflights taking longer than expected, Congress extended that prohibition for another 3 years, until October 1, 2015, in the recently passed FAA reauthorization act (P.L. 112-381). Nield said that his office is working closely with NASA and industry to "understand what would make sense" so it can be ready if the need for stricter regulations arises. NASA can impose its own safety requirements on companies that want to launch NASA astronauts, he said, emphasizing that his office is primarily focused on public safety.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), reminded the witnesses that he wrote the language in the 2004 law so that there could be a learning period for the FAA to determine just what rules are necessary. He stressed the need for the FAA to collect data during the additional 3 years to ensure that a "workable and safe" system is established. "If it's not safe, it's not workable. We know that," he said.
Rohrabacher went on to ask about the respective roles of the FAA and NASA in regulating commercial launch systems, and how Nield's part of the FAA operates compared with the rest of the FAA. which regulates aviation. Nield replied that his office works closely with NASA, and NASA "recognizes that they are not set up as a regulatory organization." As for the internal FAA roles, he said that both the aviation and space portions of the FAA are focused on safety, but the aviation portion has 100 years of experience, while his is a new industry. HIs office, which both regulates and facilitates the commercial launch industry, also wants to encourage innovation. "So that's the balance that we want to try to achieve; safety's number one, but let's allow some innovation."
The dual roles of Nield's office -- to both regulate and facilitate -- are set out in the 1984 law that created the office, but often is questioned. That was true at this hearing as well and Nield explained as he and his predecessors have said in the past that the two are not in conflict. He said again that safety is paramount, but his office engages in many activities that assist the industry such as collecting and disseminating data, helping industry understand the regulations and submit applications for licenses and permits, and working with Congress and other federal agencies to identify obstacles. In response to a related question from Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Trafton said that the dual role was appropriate today, but once the industry becomes more mature, "we should probably take a hard look at whether or not AST should be promoting commercial space."
Indemnification was another issue. Under the 1988 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments, the government indemnifies companies for part of claims that could be made if a launch goes awry and hurts the general public or damages their property. This is called "third party" indemnification because it protects only third parties, not companies or individuals directly involved in the launch. Nield's office determines what the maximum probable loss is from a launch and the launching entity must buy insurance to cover that loss. The government, however, will cover losses between $500 million and $2 billion.
The authority to provide third party liability indemnification has been extended several times. The current authority expires at the end of this year. In response to questions from Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), Nield said that COMSTAC recommended that indemnification be renewed for as many as 10 years or even making it permanent, and lifting the $1.5 billion limit on what the government can cover. However, Trafton, who chairs COMSTAC, said that it was asking for only a one-year extension right now while it continues to study the issue. He did stress, however, that the government-provided indemnification is needed to keep the U.S. launch industry globally competitive because all other countries indemnify their launch providers.
Rohrabacher defended indemnification, noting that the government provided indemnification to the nuclear power industry, which was critical for its development considering its high risk, and space launches are no different. Subcommittee chairman Palazzo noted that he will hold a hearing on the indemnification issue in late May where the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will testify about an analysis it is currently conducting on this topic.
The planetary science community got what it wanted today at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on NASA's FY2013 budget request -- strong opposition to proposed cuts to NASA's planetary program. The chairman and members of the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, on a bipartisan basis, lambasted the Obama Administration's proposed cuts especially to Mars exploration.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden valiantly tried to convince the subcommittee, which is the most influential entity in the House in determining how much money NASA gets and how it is spent, that NASA is not walking away from Mars exploration. His arguments only inflamed the debate, however.
In a heated exchange with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that builds many of NASA's planetary spacecraft, Bolden insisted that the Mars program is in good shape. The Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) is enroute to the red planet and another mission, MAVEN, is scheduled for launch next year, he reminded the subcommittee. They will join a rover and two orbiters already there. Although NASA had to back away from plans to build two Mars probes with the European Space Agency (ESA) for launch in 2016 and 2018, NASA is now developing plans for a smaller Mars mission that could be launched in 2018 or 2020, he said. Furthermore, he stressed, NASA never committed to the missions with ESA, only to discussions, and there are many other areas in which NASA and ESA continue to cooperate. He also pushed back against the idea that overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope are the cause of the cuts to Mars exploration, a charge commonly made by the planetary science community. He and other NASA officials have been insisting since the budget was released on February 13 there is no direct connection.
Schiff and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) were having none of it. Schiff assiduously attempted to get Bolden to say that the Mars cuts were imposed on NASA by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but Bolden insisted the decision was his. He also admitted that he had not known that the 2016 and 2018 missions with ESA would not actually have returned a sample to Earth. The 2018 mission only would have collected and stored (cached) samples, but could not return them to Earth -- a hugely expensive proposition. Bolden said that everyone apparently knew that but him. He made the same admission at the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee meeting two weeks ago where he revealed that he had a long conversation with then OMB Director (now White House Chief of Staff) Jack Lew while under the misimpression that the 2016 and 2018 missions would return a sample, an effort that would indeed have significant budget implications.
Bolden thus took full responsibility for the decision not to proceed with the 2016 and 2018 missions, but insisted that the U.S. Mars exploration program is strong and maintains U.S. leadership. Schiff vehemently disagreed and proclaimed that he could not support a budget that in his view means America's days of leadership in space science are limited and tells ESA it cannot depend on U.S. cooperation while at the same time China is "ascendant" on Mars exploration and we are "tantalizingly close to finding life."
Culberson was just as adamant. "I am quietly grieving for our country," he said, blaming the Obama White House for a lack of interest in NASA and the space program. Though acknowledging the difficult budget situation, he called the cut to planetary exploration "devastating" and in violation of the FY2012 appropriations act that said NASA had to implement the recommendations of the 2011 National Research Council Decadal Survey for planetary sciences. Bolden firmly countered that NASA is following the law and implementing the Decadal Survey as best it can and the two of them simply would have to agree to disagree. Culberson ended by saying that "we'll restore the vision and excitement" of Mars exploration "despite efforts of this Administration to throw a wet blanket over it." Subcommittee ranking member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) later chided Culberson for turning it into a partisan issue. Asserting that he agrees completely with Schiff's arguments in favor of restoring funds for Mars exploration, Fattah added that Culberson's attack on the Administration was "not productive."
JWST was another space science program that prompted many questions from subcommittee chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA). Wolf revealed that NASA is asking Congress to remove language that was included in last year's appropriations bill that limits how much money can be spent on the program. Last year, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that JWST be terminated because of its overruns. That decision was reversed in negotiations with the Senate and Congress added money to JWST to ensure that the telescope is launched in 2018, but Congress capped development costs at $8 billion and life-cycle costs at $8.7 billion. Wolf asked Bolden if the request to remove the cost cap language indicates that JWST will cost more than that. Bolden seemed surprised by the question and said he could not remember the rationale for asking that the language be removed. He assured Wolf that he intends to abide by the cap. Wolf asked what lessons were learned from the JWST "debacle" and Bolden said there were many, mostly in terms of management changes.
Wolf also made clear his own support for planetary exploration, following on a letter he sent to Bolden last week disapproving a NASA reprogramming request for Mars exploration because he believes the issue needs further debate. The committee has not publicly released the letter, but Aviation Week & Space Technology published a story about it.
Wolf also expressed concern about the commercial crew program, continued opposition to space cooperation with China and concern that China is trying to hack into NASA's computers, and misgivings over whether the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is meeting its obligations to find users for the International Space Station.
A Washington Post analysis of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) FY2013 budget plan released yesterday shows that the part of the budget that includes NASA would be cut six percent more than the budget proposed by President Obama over the next 10 years. Significant cuts to the part of the budget that includes NOAA also are proposed. Overall, the Ryan plan protects defense spending, but makes deeper cuts overall to the federal budget than what was agreed to last year in the Budget Control Act.
Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee and released his budget plan yesterday as a "chairman's mark." A table at the end of the chairman's mark lays out the proposed budget levels by year through 2022 for the approximately 20 budget functions into which government activities are grouped by the congressional budget committees and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Because the budget functions are broad, it is not possible to determine how much would eventually be allocated to any specific agency or activity -- that would be determined through appropriations action each year -- but the numbers do provide a cap for those budget functions and indicate relative priorities.
All of NASA's activities except aeronautics are in function 250 -- General Science, Space and Technology. That category also includes the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's science programs. For FY2013, the Ryan plan calls for allocating $28 billion, down from $29.1 billion in FY2012. The Obama budget calls for $29.5 billion in FY2013. Over the 10-year period, the Washington Post says the total for function 250 is six percent less in the Ryan budget.
NASA's aeronautics programs are in function 400, Transportation, which is slated for an even steeper cut over the 10-year period, 25 percent, under the Ryan plan according to the Washington Post's analysis.
NOAA's programs are in function 300, Natural Resources and Environment, along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and a range of conservation and natural resources programs. In the near term, function 300 would be 14.6 percent lower in 2014 in the Ryan budget according to the Washington Post. It quotes David Kendall of The Third Way as warning about the potential impact on weather forecasting: "'Our weather forecasts would be only half as accurate for four to eight years until another polar satellite is launched,' estimates Kendall. 'For many people planning a weekend outdoors, they may have to wait until Thursday for a forecast as accurate as one they now get on Monday. … Perhaps most affected would be hurricane response. Governors and mayors would have to order evacuations for areas twice as large or wait twice as long for an accurate forecast.'"
The House is expected to pass the Ryan plan next week. Senate Democrats are insisting that Republicans stick to the plan that was enacted into law last year in the Budget Control Act. That set $1.047 trillion as the total federal budget for FY2013. The Ryan budget lowers that to $1.028 trillion.
Events of Interest